The pleasures of the New York Guggenheim (1943-1959) starts with its architecture.
Despite the massive heft of this building, at no time do you feel overwhelmed by it. This cannot be said of many buildings, even famous ones, in Manhattan full of really overbearing monstrosities, new and old.
I suppose that the secret of the friendliness of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building is that circles are more prominent than any other shape and we have an ancestral species fondness for the circle.
Nor anywhere does the architecture compete with the art as at its famous cousins in Bilbao, Spain and undoubtedly in Abu Dhabi, UAE, due next year and planned to be the largest of the Guggenheim museums.
There is also its pristine white with what looks like painted bands of soft grey to relieve the eye.
Inside, more white and soft grey.
A central atrium, several stories tall, flooded with light from its circular ceiling windows.
And its famous main gallery in the shape of a spiral down which you walk whose colours change through creams and pale yellows, pale greys and whites depending where you are standing and the time of day.
The day I visited recently, I was challenged twice on my age because I asked why, at my age, I was being charged full price.
I did not reveal the secret of my youth: museums put me in a very good mood: they are the keepers of our memory and offer so many possibilities also. For how to think even and how not to be afraid.
And in a museum so luminous and easy to navigate, who could be anything but contented?
A contentment which increased with a visit to a selection of its famous foundational collection: the early Modernists.
Before the Mirror, 1876, oil on canvas. Edouard Manet, 1832-1833, French. Thannhauser Collection
Peasant with Hoe and detail, 1882, oil on canvas. Georges Seurat, 1859-1991, French.
In the Salon, 1893, pastel and oil on paperboard. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, 1864-1901.
Dancers in Green and Yellow, 1903, pastel and charcoal on tracing paper mounted to paperboard. Edgar Degas, 1834-1917., French. Thannhauser Collection
Woman Ironing and detail, 1904, oil on canvas. Pablo Picasso, 1991-1973, Spanish. Thannhauser Collection
The Football Player, 1908, oil on canvas. Henri Rousseau, 1844-1910, French.
The Palazzo Ducale seen from San Giorgio Maggiore, 1908, oil on canvas. Claude Monet, 1840-1926. Thannhauser Collection
Summer, Dune in Zeeland, 1910, oil on canvas. Piet Mondrian, 1872-1974, Dutch. On loan from the Gemeentemuseum den Haag, the Netherlands
Simultaneous Windows and detail, 1912, oil on canvas. Robert Delaunay, 1885-1941, French
Morning in the Village after Snowstorm and detail, 1912, oil on canvas. Kazimir Malevich, 1878-1935, Russian
Medrano II, 1913-’14, painted tin, wood, glass, painted oilcloth. Alexander Archipenko, 1887-1964, Russian.
The city (La Ville), 1911, oil on canvas. Robert Delaunay, 1885-1941.
Spring, 1916, oil on canvas. Giacoma Balla, 1871-1958, Italian
Woman with Yellow Hair, 1931, oil on canvas. Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973. Thannhauser Collection
Floating about quite contented, I was brought to rude earth by the question of a polite young man:
Would you like to go to the toilet? We are offering a toilet made of gold. The wait is only an hour and the line is here.
As part of his “America” exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, delayed five years because of the difficulty of the casting, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan in September 2016 replaced the toilet in the museum’s fourth-floor restroom with a fully functional replica of a standard Kohler model cast in 18-karat gold.
Viewers are being invited to use the solid gold toilet just as they would any other facility.
The museum says on its website that the exhibit “offers a wink to the excesses of the art market but also evokes the American dream of opportunity for all.”
Paid for by the ‘private funds’ of the one percent, the artist calls this “one percent art for the ninety-nine percent”. More one percent art paid for by the one percent by an artist who serves the one percent.
Bread, circuses and toilets, too.
I asked if there is video in the toilet to record its use.
No, he said. But someone goes in after every use, he said, to make sure that the toilet is as it should be for the next lucky aspirant.
Then, no thank you, I said.
What is the point of using it if no-one but me knows that I have achieved the American dream and used a toilet of solid gold like a millionaire?
The young man smiled politely and I moved away.
My faith in the uses of art was restored in an unexpected way.
The Israeli artist, Ori Gersht, born 1967, was one of several Middle Eastern Artists who had been invited by the Guggenheim to participate in a show entitled: But A Storm is Blowing from Paradise.
These famous words are excerpted from a Walter Benjamin essay on a a Paul Klee monoprint: a creature called the Angelus Novus.
Angelus Novus, 1920, monoprint. Paul Klee, 1978-1940, Swiss-German. Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Walter’s despairing analysis of this print:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The artist is not in agreement with this pessimism.
As is known, Walter Benjamin died by his own hand on September 26, 1940 in Spain upon news that Franco had decided that he and his party and all others escaping from France (the ‘Evaders’) were to be returned to Nazi authorities in France. The next day his entire party was permitted passage across Spain to Lisbon and permanent escape from the Nazis.
In the video, the artist shows the desperate flight of the philosopher across the Pyrenees through difficult terrain and terrible weather, walking slowly and carrying his papers.
At his death the artist has the philosopher passing into the light.
Scenes from Evaders, 2009, a two-color video projection with sound made by Ori Gersh, born 1967, Israeli.
Wars go on. People die for nothing. But there is always the light to which we can move, facing the light unlike the Angelus Novus who is being forcibly backed into an unwelcome future.
This is not an insignificant statement for a man who was himself born in a year of war in the Middle East where wars have not ceased. An artist’s faith.